Linus Chan posing in the James H. Binger Center for New Americans in Minneapolis, MN on January 31, 2023. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Immigration court can be a maze to navigate, but respondents don’t have to go through it alone. 

Sahan Journal has compiled a resource guide to answer questions about seeking legal representation for an immigration case. 

Sahan Journal spoke with the following immigration attorneys and legal experts in Minnesota:

Respondents don’t have a right to government-funded counsel in immigration court—even if they’re a minor. That’s because even though a deportation hearing is a serious matter, it’s a civil proceeding. The government only provides free legal representation in criminal cases to people who can’t afford to hire a private attorney.

There are plenty of resources available for people looking for an immigration attorney, or for those who want to represent themselves in court.

Attorneys said there’s no hard and fast rule about how having an attorney will impact a client’s chances of staying in the United States. Legal experts had varying opinions, with some saying the chances of staying varied from three to 11 times more likely when respondents had an attorney

The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project reports that children who crossed the border without their parents were seven times more likely to receive outcomes in their removal proceedings that allowed them to stay in the United States.

“They’re much more likely to go to court, to attend court. So it does make a significant difference to have legal representatives,” said the project’s legal director, Aimee Korolev. “And you’ll see similar rates for adults, too.”

The James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law school provides a range of legal services to immigrants. The Center houses a detainee rights clinic headed by Linus Chan. 

“Immigration laws and systems have become extraordinarily complex and confusing,” Chan said. “What’s at stake is extremely high. If you are seeking asylum and you get deported, that could mean you’re going to be subject to persecution, potentially even death. Even if you’re not facing persecution, you can be exiled from or separated from your home, your family, your community.” 

The center also works with the Advocates For Human Rights’ Immigration Court Observation Project, an initiative that began in 2017 to document how immigration court operates in Minnesota. 

Amy Lange, coordinator of the court observation project, described immigration court as “intimidating and opaque”. Typically, respondents in most legal hearings are given the opportunity to dress in everyday clothing of formal wear, like a suit and tie or dress. They’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, a constitutional right that can be adversely affected when a respondent shows up in court in a jail-issued jumpsuit, she explained. 

Lange said she’s seen detainees appear in immigration court wearing  orange, jail-issued jumpsuits with chains around their hands and feet. It’s important that respondents have someone advocating for them who can address such issues, she added.

“It’s life or death,” said Lange. “It really affects outcomes—if you have a pathway forward.”

Chan and Sarah Brenes, executive director of the Binger Center, echoed Lange’s sentiment. Brenes added that an attorney can help respondents even if they have a low chance of staying in the United States.

“Regardless of the outcome of the case, they’ll have a better understanding of what happened, what their rights were, and have a better chance to have a fair day in court,” Brenes said of what attorneys can offer.

Legal representation can get expensive, but there are options at various income levels. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid provides pro bono immigration services for people living in Hennepin and Anoka counties whose incomes are lower than two times the federal poverty guidelines. The organization’s managing attorney, Alison Cox, said the agency helps clients with other areas of law as well, including family, housing, tax, and consumer law. 

Sahan has compiled more information below about how to find an immigration attorney and resources for respondents who choose to represent themselves in court.

Why do I need an immigration attorney? What will they help me with?

Immigration laws and procedures are complicated and ever-changing, Cox said. And on top of that, an immigrant is usually struggling with other daily life issues, too.

Brenes said that resources provided by the court can sometimes be helpful, but they’re not always updated with the most current information.

“If you’re there on your own, and you have the judge and the government attorney, and you’re sitting alone at the table, it’s far less than ideal,” Brenes said. “To have someone there who’s with you, who can interpret what’s going on, speak on your behalf, and understand what your goals and wishes are and advocate for you in that setting is really critical.”

There are also language barriers to utilizing court-provided resources and navigating a court  case, Lange said.

“When you think about navigating the process, it’s telling you your rights, translating your documents. It’s not just representing you in court,” Lange said. “It’s gathering evidence, it’s knowing what evidence to gather, it’s preparing for your testimony so you know what questions you’re going to be asked. It’s explaining the process.”

Chan said an immigration attorney can help with a range of services: Obtaining visas or other forms of legal status, sponsoring family members, or applying for citizenship, among other duties. They also work with companies to hire immigrant employees. Overall, immigration attorneys can lead a client through the process while also helping them acclimate to life in Minnesota.

At Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Cox said attorney services range from providing basic advice to full legal representation.

How much will an attorney cost? And what does pro bono mean?

Cost depends on a lot of things, but the short answer is that there are different options.

Pro bono refers to free legal services, which are typically available for people from low income backgrounds. Some attorneys offer reduced rates. There are a number of pro bono providers in Minnesota, like Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and private attorneys who volunteer their time for pro bono cases. 

Most attorneys are open to talking about a client’s economic situation. Since immigration cases can go on for a long time, many attorneys charge a flat fee rather than an hourly rate. Some attorneys offer payment plans over time to ease the financial burden. 

Brenes said the options vary, especially for asylum seekers who don’t have work authorization, or for clients who are being detained by authorities as their court proceedings continue. 

Where is immigration court in Minnesota?

The court is at the Fort Snelling stop of the Metro Transit Blue Line. There’s also free parking.

Fort Snelling Immigration Court

Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building

1 Federal Drive, Suite 1850

Fort Snelling, MN 55111

The court also handles cases from North Dakota and South Dakota.

What if I have trouble reading or speaking English?

Respondents have the right to an interpreter at court hearings. The judge will ask the respondent if they need an interpreter at the start of the hearing. If there isn’t a live interpreter available at initial hearings, respondents or their attorneys can request one for the final hearing. Spanish-speaking interpreters are readily available at the immigration court in Minnesota.

“It’s important to know that there’s no mark against you—there’s no adverse determination if somebody says that they need an interpreter,” Cox said. “It’s really important that the respondents understand everything that the judge says, and that they ask questions if they don’t understand. The judge wants the respondent to be informed.”

Live interpreters in the courtroom translate for the respondent via a headset. Sometimes, initial hearings are pretty simple, Brenes said, so respondents can waive a live interpreter if they feel comfortable with an interpreter who listens to the court hearing over the phone.

Sarah Brenes posing in the Walter F. Mondale Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN on January 31, 2023. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

But it’s important to arrange for an in-person interpreter in advance if a respondent plans to testify in court, legal experts said. In such cases, lawyers recommend asking for one as soon as possible, and being as specific as possible about a respondent’s needs. 

For example, attorneys and the judge should be notified as soon as possible if a respondent prefers speaking in an Indigenous language even if they’re from a country where Spanish is the dominant language.

Cox said respondents have the right to request a new interpreter if they’re not satisfied with someone’s interpretation services.

Many immigration attorneys are multilingual or employ staff who are. There are also several advocacy organizations that have compiled educational materials in different languages. 

The Innovation Law Lab, an immigration advocacy group based in Portland, Oregon, has instructional videos on its YouTube channel in Spanish and in some Indigenous languages spoken in Central and South America. 

Advocates For Human Rights, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has information on its website in 16 languages about how immigrants who are detained can ask for an immigration bond. An immigration bond an amount of money a detainee pays to the Department of Homeland Security to assure the agency that you will attend future hearings in court.

What if I’m an unaccompanied minor?

Chan noted that immigration court often intersects with the child welfare system in Minnesota, so it’s important to have an attorney who understands both systems. He recommends working with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid for cases involving undocumented children who immigrated to the United States without their parents.

Cox, the managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said her agency can provide resources, but it’s important for clients to read every immigration document they have and make sure the information is accurate. 

Clients should take the time to inform themselves about the immigration court process, make copies of all of their documents for their attorney, and compile copies of any documents they filed with the court before they hired an attorney.

Cox said respondents should update the immigration court with their new home address if they move, stay in touch with family members who are receiving any of their mail in order to keep up with notices from the court, or submit a change of address application for all new home addresses. The change-of-address application for Minnesota is available here, and listed each state here.

Brenes advises respondents to ask the judge questions throughout their court proceedings, and to clarify with the judge what steps are expected of them when the proceedings are completed. 

Minors who are in removal proceedings, which is a court process determining whether they should be deported, should call as many attorneys as possible, said Brenes, the executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans. 

How do I find an attorney? How do I prepare to meet with them?

Cox said that the demand for immigration services is very high, so respondents should be prepared to place their names on a waiting list. Cox recommends asking about fees and payment plan options upfront, and to keep searching for other attorney options if you encounter waitlists.

Chan stressed that pro bono providers are generally strained and over-booked. 

“If you have money, there’s a very robust and very good set of immigration lawyers in Minnesota,” Chan said. He recommends checking out the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Chan only takes specialized immigration cases through referrals because he works with law students who help him on the cases. 

Attorneys recommend that before meeting with an attorney, clients should keep all of their immigration documents in a folder, including birth certificates and passports. Some attorneys will ask clients to fill out a form about their immigration history before meeting. Others will go through that history with clients when at a meeting. 

Members of the Immigration Court Observation Project in front of the Whipple Federal Building in Fort Snelling, MN. Credit: Bill Cameron | Immigration Court Observation Project

Lange said respondents are also responsible for providing evidence in certain immigration proceedings. If a respondent is seeking asylum, for example, they must provide evidence of persecution in their home country. An attorney can help compile that evidence, but seeking asylum can be difficult, Lange said.

“What are the criteria I have to meet and how do I prove that?” Lange said of the asylum process. “What documents do I need?  That’s really difficult even if you have an attorney, because you don’t necessarily escape with photographs of the threatening letter you got, or the house that got burned down, or how you sought medical treatment after being beaten.”

Lange recommends adding any such supporting evidence to your folder.

Brenes said most immigration attorneys are candid about a client’s chances. If attorneys don’t see a viable path toward legal status, they will let a client know.

“For some people, that might be a peace of mind,” Brenes said. “Having an attorney that can help them understand the process and advocate even for something like voluntary departure, that will help someone leave the country with their dignity intact, instead of being handcuffed and put on a plane.”

What should I know if I’m representing myself?

Unlike in criminal court, the respondent—not the government—has the burden of proof in immigration court of showing that they have a legitimate pathway to stay in the United States. Chan said that while having an immigration lawyer is ideal, plenty of people can navigate parts or all of the process on their own and you can still win their case. This is called “pro se.”

“Sometimes you encounter people who have this sense of despair, ‘If I don’t have an immigration lawyer, it means I can’t win my case,’” Chan said. “It’s of course better to have a lawyer, but it is not a prerequisite to win a case. And on the flip side, just because you have a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re going to win either.”

Brenes added that judges lower their expectation for complicated legal arguments when a respondent represents themselves. The judge also has a greater responsibility to provide more explanations in such cases.

“It’s important to feel comfortable and really understand that the most important person in the courtroom is [the respondent],” Brenes said. “Do not be intimidated that the judge is up on their high chair. If you don’t understand something the judge is saying or the instructions for you, ask for that clarification.”

Here are some resources for respondents who want to represent themselves in immigration court: 

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...